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Appeals Court Says Insurer May Be Liable for Teenager Injured in ATV Accident

If someone is injured on your property and sues, you naturally expect your insurance company will cover any damages. But insurance policies are complex contracts often containing multiple exclusions, which could leave you on the hook for a large award. That is why it is important to understand every term used in an insurance policy, as any ambiguity may lead to litigation between you and the insurer over just what the policy covers. A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals illustrates this problem in greater detail.

Partin v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company

The victim in this case was a 14-year-old girl visiting her mother’s boyfriend’s farm in Georgia. The boyfriend owned an all-terrain vehicle he used in the course of his farm work. He often allowed the girl to use the vehicle with his permission. On the day in question, the girl and one of her girlfriends had asked to use the ATV, but the owner refused because he was heading out to the store and did not want the girls driving the vehicle unsupervised. The girls ignored this, and after the owner left, they found the keys and took the vehicle out. While the girlfriend was driving, she lost control of the vehicle while attempting a curve, throwing her from the ATV and severely injuring her feet.

The girlfriend’s grandfather subsequently sued the farm owner for negligently allowing the girls to operate the vehicle without permission or adequate supervision. The farm owner then demanded his insurer, Georgia Farm Bureau, defend the lawsuit and pay any damage award under his policy. The insurer balked and filed suit in Georgia state court seeking a declaration it was not liable because the ATV was an excluded “motor vehicle.” The trial court agreed and granted Georgia Farm Bureau summary judgment. The farm owner appealed, and the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s summary judgment.

The insurance policy at issue here covered injuries sustained on the farm. This excluded any injuries caused by the use of a “motor vehicle” on the property. But this exclusion, in turn, did not apply to “mobile equipment” or “farm implements” used as part of the farm’s business. This included machinery like bulldozers, forklifts and tractors, but it could also apply to any vehicle used “principally off public roads” for the purpose of “cultivating and harvesting.”

So the legal question is whether the ATV constituted “mobile equipment” or a “farm implement” subject to the policy, or an excluded “motor vehicle.” The trial court held no reasonable jury could conclude the ATV was either mobile equipment or a farm implement. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The appeals court noted there was no controlling legal authority in Georgia conclusively defining either “mobile equipment” or “farm implement” in this context. And the policy itself did not expressly exclude ATVs. “Considering the policy as a whole,” the appeals court concluded, “and construing the ambiguity against the insurer, the trial court erred by concluding that the policy could not be so construed.” So as long as there is some ambiguity on these issues, the farm owner, as the policyholder, should be allowed to present his case to a jury.